The next pandemic

Dr. Taronna Maines, a microbiologist in the influenza branch at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, inoculates 10-day old embryonated hen's eggs with a specimen containing an H5N1 avian influenza virus. (Photo by Greg Knobloch)

Dr. Taronna Maines, a microbiologist in the influenza branch at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, inoculates 10-day old embryonated hen's eggs with a specimen containing an H5N1 avian influenza virus. (Photo by Greg Knobloch)

HILL AIR FORCE BASE, Utah -- Base leadership and health officials at Hill are taking anything but a "wait and see" approach to the ever-increasing notion that the world could be on the verge of experiencing another influenza pandemic.

A pandemic is the worldwide epidemic transmission of a communicable disease spread human to human. Experts in the health field say it's not a matter of if it will happen but when it will happen.

When DOD recently issued guidance and the Air Force directed its medical personnel to train leadership on the potential catastrophic impact of a pandemic, health officials here responded immediately to begin educating Team Hill leaders and members.

Last week Col Scott Chambers, 75th ABW commander, met with approximately 30 members of the base's leadership for a training session on what could happen if an influenza pandemic hit. It was also an opportunity to help finalize input into Hill's draft Disease Containment Plan. Additional training for the rest of the base leadership is forthcoming.

In addition to educating base commanders and leaders, base medical personnel will be reaching out to educate individuals on what they can do to prepare themselves and their families for a pandemic.

"In any public health emergency such as an influenza pandemic, assurance of family preparedness would be the single most important peace of mind factor that would allow the military member to leave his or her family and come to work to get the mission done," said Col. Breck Lebegue, Public Health Emergency officer for Hill.

The last severe influenza pandemic occurred in 1918. The results were staggering--700,000 deaths in the United States and upwards of 50 million people died worldwide. In 1968, a mild influenza pandemic killed 34,000 people in the U.S. and 700,000 worldwide.

"Historically, a severe influenza pandemic occurs about every 100 years," said Lt. Col. Brad Winterton, Hill's alternate Public Health Emergency Officer. "The 1918 pandemic began very similar to what we are seeing right now in the eastern hemisphere with the H5N1 strain of bird flu or avian influenza. That's what's driving the current concern and preparations."

Although the Food and Drug Administration already has a pre-pandemic vaccine in the works, Winterton says we don't know whether on not that vaccine will be effective when the current strain of bird flu gains the ability to easily infect humans and pass from person to person. "When that occurs," said Winterton, "it won't be exactly the same virus the pre-pandemic vaccine was made to combat. It might be 90 percent effective, or it might be worthless. We won't know until it happens, but we hope it will be at least partially effective until a new vaccine can be developed against the new strain."

On average and with current technology, it takes approximately six months to develop an influenza vaccine. With the advent of new technology, six months could be cut to about two months said Winterton. "But that technology is not exactly ready for prime-time just yet. It's still being perfected."

The base is not alone in terms of getting people educated and prepared locally. On Sept, 18-20, there will be a Statewide Pandemic Influenza Exercise. In addition to the base, other involvement will include the state health department, county health departments, law enforcement, local hospitals, the Utah National Guard, and the governor's office.

Although this may be alarming news for some individuals, Winterton cautions it's not the end of the world. "The sky is not falling," he said. "Because of what's going on in the Far East, it's a very good time to prepare."

"The world will experience another pandemic and it will get through it, as it has all previous ones," said Dr. Michael T. Osterholm, director, Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy.

For further questions contact, the Lt. Col. Brad Winterton at DSN: 777-1165.